Kärt Vaarmari. Legal aspects of protecting sacred natural places


There are no special provisions in the Estonian legislation that deal with the protection of holy groves or other historical natural sacred places. Some sacred places are protected as natural objects on the basis of the Nature Conservation Act or as cultural monuments on the basis of the Heritage Conservation Act, but there is no accurate picture of the situation because data on sacred sites has not been collected systematically. A large number of sacred sites are not protected at all. The Nature Conservation Act provides a basis for state protection of sacred natural places, but in reality the sites are often not protected as a valuable whole: heritage conservation focuses on archaeological cultural layers and nature conservation on biological diversity. Thus, it is important to solve the question whether the legal regulation of granting state protection for sacred natural places is sufficient or it should be amended.

It would be reasonable to learn form the experience of other countries when estimating the need and possibilities for strengthening or specifying the legal protection of historical natural sacred places. Sacred natural places of the native population are given special attention as objects of national cultural heritage in various countries, and there are laws to protect the native cultural heritage, including sacred natural places. Nevertheless, neither Australia nor the USA have succeeded in avoiding conf licts related to the protection of sacred places, in spite of the existing legislation; the nature of the conf licts are similar to the recent Estonian cases involving plans to use sites of ancient groves for economic purposes (plans to establish a ski centre in Paluküla and a wind-park in Kunda).

Michael F. Brown, professor of anthropology, describes such cases in his book Who Owns Native Culture?, which raises the following issues: the criteria that a state protected sacred site should meet, whether it should be in use, and if so, should the users of the site be ready to describe its function and religious meaning? Another issue is how to determine whether the use of the sacred site is part of the cultural heritage and how to establish that not recent but ancient values are conserved.

It seems at first that the conservation problems of sacred sites in Estonia are similar to those in the USA and Australia, but they cannot be solved by merely giving answers to the above questions. Estonian sacred sites are the cultural heritage of the native population that inhabits the country at the moment, and thus the use of the site by a definite native religious group should not be a conservation criterion.

Nevertheless, ancient values should be protected. State protection of natural sacred places sets limitations on landowners or land users, and therefore public interest in such limitations should be clearly defined and considered when imposing them. A thorough legal analysis is needed to solve the legal questions related to the protection of sacred natural places.

Kärt Vaarmari